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The Sadness of Desert Trolls: On Robert Altman’s ‘3 Women’

In the mid-1970s, filmmaker Robert Altman had a restless night of lucid dreams which moved him to awaken and take notes. Therein, he was filming a movie about shifting identities in a harsh and lonesome desert. There were two actors of note. Shelley Duvall (The Shining), who he’d previously worked with, and Sissy Spacek (Carrie), of whom he knew only by reputation. He awoke. The dream was over, but the memories remained. These notions developed into a 50-page treatment, which became a movie greenlit by 20th Century Fox. The production company decided that Altman’s 1970 smash hit MASH (combined with a reputation for infallibly coming in on budget) made him a safe bet.

The result was 3 Women (1977), a surreal jaunt through a particularly arid patch of Southern California desert where dreams disappear quicker than water into sand and manifest destiny had long given way to a heartfelt sigh finding its way to the bottom of a beer can. The film, indeed, stars Duvall and Spacek as two Texans named Mildred who meet by chance while working at a geriatric health spa (Duvall’s character prefers “Millie” while Spacek’s goes by “Pinky”). Eventually, Millie and Pinky move in and a moment of self-harm leads the latter to assume the identity of the former.

The role of third woman is usually assigned to Willie, played by Janice Rule (Missing). Willie is a pregnant muralist who co-owns both the apartment Millie and Pinky live at and the bar somewhere down the road where they’re often hanging around. The other owner is Willie’s philandering husband who’s less interested in settling down than he is in drunken target practice at the gun range and midnight trysts with either Millie or Pinky.

3 Women was a critical darling, and it’s easy to understand why. Altman balances searing interpersonal conflicts with a visual rhythm that’s downright whimsical. Each member of the cast turns in a star performance. Supposedly, the story never made it much past the 50-page treatment before filming. So, Duvall and Spacek were called on to exercise some improvisational skills to extemporaneously get their respective jobs done. If that’s true, then the seam between their planned and unplanned performances is too smooth to uncover. Each are at peak power.

Audiences have never quite “found” 3 Women. Its fan base might very well be rabid, but it pales compared to the rest of Altman’s filmography (probably in part because we’re talking about such a hyper-talented filmmaker with so many important films). Although, the time period offers some clues as to why this one flew so far under the radar. Released in 1977, American society was in a state of dramatic flux. The spiritual devastation of the Nixon resignation and the cultural betrayal of his pardon was only a few years in the rearview mirror. The economy was in the midst of a constricting recession. And, of course, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present.

The vision of America which Altman offered cut too close to the bone. 3 Women subverts every archetype and stereotype the audience could hold on to for some sense of escapist order amid the chaos of their daily lives. Millie should be the leading lady, but she’s so self-absorbed that she hardly realizes that everyone but Pinky finds her repellant. Willie’s child is stillborn, which seems to fulfill a dread she exudes throughout the course of the film.

Her husband Edgar, played by Robert Fortier (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), is particularly multifaceted in this regard. Fortier is an actor whose greatest role was stand-in work on a second rate TV Western (at a time when “prestige television” was utterly unknown). His greatest moments of restraint and tenderness are during the passages of pillow talk leading up to the consummation of his affairs with Millie and then with Pinky.

At the end, the narrative itself becomes an uncertain geography. After Willie’s stillbirth, she and Pinky and Millie are depicted as living in a house out back of the bar. Pinky acts like her old self, childish and rather naïve, while she calls Millie “mother” and Willie “grandmother.” Willie speaks, for the first time, and mentions this odd dream before falling into discussions about Pinky’s domestic duties with Millie. The camera work feels less airy. The discussions are more linear. Up until this point, it often appears like two people locked in conversation are speaking about different topics. For just the last few minutes, the film becomes what one might expect. Then, black. And it’s over.

The America which originally rejected 3 Women and our own in the current iteration have certain similarities. There are materially and existential threats externally, economic instability internally and a collective push to consolidate and define national identities. 3 Women is very much a product of its time, but it also transcends the status of a meager record or mindless entertainment. Altman and crew achieved a kind of banal surrealism on par with anything fantastical which issued from the mind of Luis Buñuel or Jan Švankmajer. It’s a dense movie and leaves viewers longing to think over its components.

Clayton Schuster (@SchusterClayton) is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He bleeds words about arts and culture for Vague Visages, Hyperallergic, Hi-Frictose, Midnight Pulse and other outlets. He is also a screenwriter for Lunaventure Productions and has a book on art feuds out in 2018 with Schiffer Publications. If he’s not reading or writing, then chances are he’s being bullied around by his Formosan Mountain Dog named Willow.

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